Jun 01, 2013
By Laura Eggertson

Baby friendly

Introducing kangaroo care to Canada is just one of Kathy Hamelin’s accomplishments

Courtesy of HSC WinnipegKathy Hamelin has dedicated her 40-plus-year nursing career to better outcomes for newborns and their families.

Kathy Hamelin recalls the first time she told a mother it was OK to hold the tiny son she had only previously touched with a finger through a portal in an incubator. The baby, weighing just three pounds, had been in the NICU at the Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg for weeks. This was 1992, and placing premature babies skin to skin on the mother’s chest wasn’t done in Canadian hospitals. Babies weren’t taken out of incubators until they were 3½ pounds. But research from Colombia had shown that this ever-so-close contact enhances bonding, increases breastfeeding rates and improves outcomes.

After 20 years in neonatal nursing, Hamelin had just completed her master of nursing degree. In her thesis, she examined the impact on families of having babies in neonatal intensive care. She understood these new mothers often felt like outsiders, with no role to play. As a newly hired clinical nurse specialist in neonatal care in the women’s health program at HSC, she was eager to try out kangaroo care, as it was referred to in the literature from Colombia.

“I remember putting the baby on the mom’s chest,” says Hamelin. “And she said, ‘It makes me feel like a mother, for the first time since he was born.’ It was amazing to see.” Today, many more mothers connect with their preemies through skin-to-skin contact — thanks to Hamelin, who introduced kangaroo care to Canada.

Hamelin, now 61, has spent her career working with babies and families. She began nursing in 1971 at 19. She grew up in an Air Force family that moved umpteen times for her father’s postings. Winnipeg was where she finished high school and earned her RN diploma. She has never lost the passion that was sparked on her first day as a nurse in the NICU. “I fell in love with the babies and the moms,” Hamelin says.

In addition to her clinical work, she is involved in research projects that arise from her practice interests, most of them focused on breastfeeding but also on parent and infant co-sleeping.

Courtesy of HSC Winnipeg

The interviews Hamelin conducted for her MN thesis have guided her practice over the years. After learning of the difficulties in breastfeeding or even in pumping milk in the NICU, she set out to become certified as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. She was one of the first nurses in Manitoba to obtain this credential. She brought the new expertise to her CNS role, teaching mothers how to breastfeed and hand express milk, which can be given to premature infants through a tube or dribbled into their mouths from a cup. Before long, she was getting calls to assist breastfeeding mothers on the regular maternity wards. Today, her facility has a breastfeeding service and a full-time lactation consultant. HSC continues to make progress toward designation as a Baby-Friendly Hospital, and Hamelin is thrilled at the prospect of ultimately achieving this goal.

With colleagues from the University of Manitoba, where she is an adjunct professor in the graduate nursing program, Hamelin created a three-hour online breastfeeding education program for health-care professionals: “There is certainly support for breastfeeding, but many care providers are not knowledgeable about this topic because it is not part of the curriculum for most health-care professions.”

She and a colleague developed a screening tool to identify breastfeeding-related yeast infection, research that garnered them support from the Dr. Paul H.T. Thorlakson Foundation Fund at the University of Manitoba.

Hamelin can take credit for initiating the first home phototherapy program in Canada for treating jaundice in newborns. Babies with high levels of jaundice had either remained in hospital well past their normal discharge date or had to be readmitted for treatment, which involved a bank of bright lights placed on top of an incubator. Although effective, this practice disrupted breastfeeding and separated mothers and babies. Now, babies who meet eligibility criteria are wrapped in a fibre optic pad that delivers light therapy 24 hours a day, at home. Public health nurses monitor them daily. “Home phototherapy works well and is a cost-saving measure, but, most importantly, it is a kinder, gentler way of providing treatment,” Hamelin says.

Kinder and gentler are Hamelin’s watchwords when it comes to children. She and her husband dote on their five grandchildren, taking them on major trips and out to the family cottage on Brereton Lake. She reads thrillers voraciously and pursues photography as a hobby when she’s on one of her personal “mini-vacations.”

After these breaks, she’s back at work and ready to meet the next family that need her care and expertise: “Being able to share in the birth and care of a child — such a momentous occasion for these families — brings me great satisfaction.”

10 questions with Kathy Hamelin

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?
Find time to be more social

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn?
I love to play tennis

“If I had more free time, I would…”
Probably play more tennis

Where did you go on your last vacation?
To Walt Disney World, with my nine-year-old granddaughter. We’re taking all our grandchildren, one at a time

Name one place in the world you’d most like to visit.
Hawaii (again)

What was the last good book you read?
The Racketeer by John Grisham

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
One of my first directors advised me to put my ideas into practice

What do you like least about being a nurse?
The time constraints in clinical practice

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
I’d hire more advanced practice nurses, who can help incorporate evidence-based care into practice

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist in Ottawa, Ont.
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